Why old-school teaching fails new Canada

TheStar.com – news/insight
Published On Sat Apr 02 2011.   By Rick Salutin, Columnist

From its 19th-century beginnings, public education here was a venture in equity — another way to say fairness. The public back then was mostly white and Protestant, with British or American roots. But the rich among them had their own private schools. Public schools arose to equalize access to schooling.

The public grew more complex through immigrant waves: German, Jewish, Italian, etc. They often arrived poor, without knowing English or “our” public values. The schools taught their kids those values along with the skills they needed to rise economically. As prosperity came, the values tended to follow. So public education was an exercise in assimilation, and it generally worked. Public schools created public citizens.

More recent immigrants pose additional challenges. Most aren’t white and many aren’t Christian (or Judeo-Christian). Some arrive wealthy, but lots don’t. The traditional route to integration and Canadianization is through the pubic schools. But not all kids are thriving there; African-Canadian boys are a striking example, but some Latin American, Portuguese, Vietnamese and other kids are also struggling. The schools aren’t doing their traditional job for these groups.

There is also the festering case of aboriginal peoples. In the past they were expected to assimilate through the school system, because their own communities were considered primitive and backward. That simply isn’t on now.

The question is: What happens when the “public” in public education changes? It now includes these new “racialized” groups and it includes Canada’s first inhabitants.

You can’t eliminate either from your definition of public, the way you once could — but some of them are being ill-served in the public schools. It doesn’t mean the whole system is failing, but it does mean it isn’t truly public. If we think that matters, what can be done?

Pathways to Education is a shockingly effective program for high school kids that began in Regent Park, a low-income, public housing area in Toronto. It’s 80 per cent non-white with English as a second language, and known for gangs and violence. Pathways was started in 2001 by Carolyn Acker, who’d been a community health nurse there. She says she used to go home at night feeling, “All I am is a Band-Aid.” She and others decided to “break the cycle of poverty” by lowering the high school dropout rate. They did this by basically ignoring the schools, or accepting them as they are, and focusing maniacally on the kids.

They began by giving out bus fare to get to school. It had been cut during the Mike Harris years. If kids don’t show at school, they don’t get the fare. Many kids figured out you could keep the money if you left early and walked. They put $1,000 a year per kid into an account for post-secondary studies. The kids have workers who keep tabs on them. They get regular tutoring. Attendance is mandatory. They sign contracts each year to uphold their end. The money comes from fundraising, much of it from big financial firms on Bay Street. They don’t just give money, they provide mentors and jobs. The annual budget for Regent Park is about $4.5 million; all of it has to be raised, some from government agencies but a lot from other sources.

In the first five years, the dropout rate from Regent Park dived from 56 per cent to 10 per cent. Post-secondary attendance rose from 21 per cent to 80 per cent. Ninety-three per cent now graduate, out of more than 1,000 kids from Regent Park who attend various Toronto high schools. The program has now expanded to 11 communities from Halifax to Winnipeg. It involves 3,400 students, each costing $4,800 per year per student. About 60-70 per cent of its funding comes from provincial and federal governments, the rest comes from private and non-government sources. The separate programs are independently run but overseen by a national body.

Ghissan (not his real name; he doesn’t want his parents to know what he was once into) had been in a Regent Park gang. “You beat up guys, you get beat up, you make good money delivering drugs for dealers, but you can get put away for 10 years,” he says. He heard about Pathways and got involved. He left the gang, gradually, so as not to upset his pals. Now he’s doing an MA in social work. He wants to return to the area, work with kids and buy a house. He’d like to buy one for his parents, too, in their South Asian homeland, because “they left everything for us.” He says talk in Regent Park now isn’t about gangs, it’s where you’ll do your MA. “If you only go to college, you get laughed at.” The kids in university have started a Pathways alumni group. They donate to the program and figure that one day they’ll outnumber the kids in high school so Pathways won’t need to raise funds anymore. Talk about breaking the cycle.

This is opposite to the approach celebrated in the 2010 U.S. documentary Waiting for Superman, in which broken public schools and bad teachers are seen as the problem — and the solution is private, publicly funded charter schools. But those will never be a large-scale answer even if they work for a limited number. Beside the tax money they receive, they tend to be heavily funded by corporations, foundations and, often, celebrities. Plus they tend to draw on the most motivated among needy families. It’s no formula for the vast majority. The typical counter-argument is that you can’t help those kids unless you deal with the underlying causes of their poverty first. Pathways does neither. It doesn’t try to change the schools and it doesn’t try to eliminate poverty. It concentrates relentlessly on the kids at risk in high school and stays with them unshakably. What works is single-minded determination.

But Acker says it wouldn’t work for everyone. It’s a “made-in-Canada solution,” and not even for all of Canada. Pathways builds on the fact we have “a beautiful platform of social programs, we have outstanding elementary and high schools. You have that foundation and you use it.” Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence once asked, with undeniable moral passion, “What do you have to celebrate simply because the kids who have always done well continue to do well?” Pathways suggests an answer: Celebrate it, because you can build on it to make the needed repairs for those who are still struggling.

I went to Saskatchewan to see a different “equity” program which focuses on one ancient though diverse population: aboriginal peoples. It’s like a reverse of Pathways: everything is drawn into the schools, and all student needs are handled within them. It grew from the notion of “community schools,” a fairly common educational term that usually denotes poor and “at-risk” populations. In Saskatchewan, the concept got updated more than 10 years ago into something called SchoolPlus, which was unique because it meant to include not just schools with at-risk students but all the province’s public schools, each in its own way according to its needs. The Brad Wall government that replaced the NDP in 2007 scrapped the name due to its association with the NDP, but seems committed to the ideas behind it. The broadening to all schools hasn’t happened, but about 100 of the 700 or so schools in the province are now designated “community,” up from only 11 inner-city schools in 1999. They include high schools, rural and northern schools. Each gets about $140,000 in additional funds.

At venerable Nutana High in Saskatoon, with 60 per cent aboriginal students, there’s a huge range of services based right in the school. So kids don’t face the stigma of being sent to see a social worker downtown “because you’re screwed up.” Those staff work with classroom teachers and go into classes; issues like homelessness and alcoholism are handled right there. This normalizes them and makes them easier to discuss. There’s a program for student-parents. I stupidly asked if that meant parents of students, but it’s students who are parents. They bring their kids, including newborns, to school, visit between classes, learn to bond with them and get a credit for it (they also get credits for learning about breastfeeding or fetal alcohol syndrome). One worker was a student here himself and learned he was going to be a dad at the time. Now he runs the boys’ mentorship group. A stay-in-school coordinator checks on kids who seem to have fallen off the face of the Earth. Staff struggle to keep the kids connected. Schools are supposed to cut students off at age 22, but Nutana accepts them till 28 or 29. Teachers and other workers have Acker’s tenacity; it’s the key ingredient.

At first it just looks like a grab bag of the usual services, but assembled inside the schools. Then you realize it begins not with the services but with a community expressing what it needs, through a grassroots process. It might start with profiles written by the kids, which are then painstakingly analyzed. Or a school’s staff members figure out what’s required in their community. Nothing is decreed from above and delivered from beyond. So the shape of each community school varies, depending on the needs of each community.

At Nutana it’s mainly social services. At St. Mary, also in Saskatoon, the stress is on health care because “the six blocks around here has the collective health profile of Uganda,” says Gary Beaudin from the Catholic schools office. It’s 100 years old, 90 per cent aboriginal and Catholic. There’s a pediatrician, a clinical psychologist, a dental hygienist, a kinesiology program and an optometrist they found who had “a social justice philosophy.” Without that, say Beaudin and principal Tony Bairos, who went here himself as a kid, “it wouldn’t work.” They mean you need an extra level of commitment to work in this setting.

Sacred Heart Elementary in Regina, in what Maclean’s called “the worst neighbourhood in Canada,” focuses on safety and reading. December, when I visited, is rough. The kids see Christmas images that remind them of what they don’t have, and there’s often partying and drinking at home that they know can lead to violence. So they like to linger at school. But the place is also Reading Heaven. Kids read everywhere — in class, in the hallways. They take computer tests to gain points for books they’ve read. There are family reading nights. Principal Starla Grebinski, who went here herself as a kid, competes with students in finishing books; often they’re far ahead of her on points — “And sometimes they don’t have heat or running water at home.”

At Regina’s Archbishop M.C. O’Neill high, they have “golden greeters” who come in every morning — local seniors who welcome the kids and create a mood that helps reduce hazing and conflict. They also teach cribbage, sewing, curling and power skating. The kids help clean up areas nearby. It builds an intergenerational community connection.

At Arcola elementary in Regina, the main question asked by the staff was: “What will be good for our demographics?” Since they have the highest percentage of single families in Regina, they decided what they needed was, first, a sense of family and then, individualized instruction because the kids are at such different levels that one teacher per classroom isn’t enough. So they concocted a program of team teaching, three or four teachers per expanded class. Some teachers resisted at first. Now you’d have to pry it out of their grip.

These schools have been designated community schools, and with that comes the extra funding needed for what they do. But the community’s own voice is at the centre. As a result, you don’t just end up giving the community what someone thinks it needs; you start changing the nature of the community and its schools.

This deeper level is explained by University of Regina education professor Michael Tymchak. He lays out a historical backdrop: There was an original phase of fruitful contact out here between First Nations and arriving Europeans. Then came a long period when aboriginals “fell off the map,” yet survived. We’re now in a “re-contact era.” New relations are being negotiated based on mutual respect. He calls these “tectonic shifts” for Saskatchewan. It means changing the schools. But it also creates opportunities to “forge a new society,” which is as much “theirs” as it is “ours,” and can make us better as well as kinder.

Tymchak sees these shifts not just as a chance to do right by the downtrodden, but also as a way for the whole society to become truer to itself. Public education was never public enough. It was too narrow and WASPy, too “informed by Anglo-Christian values and deference to the ideals of British monarchy.” Yet it contained the seeds of diversity and equity. Egerton Ryerson, who created Ontario’s schools in the 19th century, might not recognize the results, or like them, but equity is what the system he launched was meant for. It’s good for all kids, not just the neediest, to get a more complex, messier sense of the messy world they’re part of. It’s more fun.

The late sociologist John Seeley told me that in the 1950s, he went from studying ghetto kids in Chicago to affluent families in Forest Hill Village because he wanted to know if they were all deprived, in their ways. He found the well off were probably even more troubled, because they sensed they were cut off from large chunks of reality by their privilege. Equity is a learning op for everyone. Its challenge is to expand the notion of public and transform the nature of education to correspond to it. Equity in the schools is really an answer to the question: Who are we now?

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